Green economy and the road to Rio

The proposed ‘Road to Rio’ still looks at nature, people and their products as capital that must be used in the most efficient manner for profit accumulation

By ROSARIO BELLA GUZMAN
IBON Features / Bulatlat.com

IBON Features — Hundreds of heads of states are expected to attend the Earth Summit on June 20 to 22, back in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where the first Earth Summit took place in 1992. More popularly called ‘Rio+20’, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) is a gathering of world leaders, along with thousands of participants from governments, the private sector, nongovernment organizations, media and others to discuss and shape the official agenda for reducing poverty, advancing social equity and ensuring environmental protection in the decades to come.
The Rio+20 is expected to produce a new action plan for countries to adopt. The conference focuses on the theme ‘green economy’ which is supposedly a new sustainable approach to eradicating poverty.

The Rio+20 is happening at a critical period in Earth’s history. Twenty years after world leaders made historic commitments to saving the planet, the global economy is sinking into a protracted depression and the planet is confronted with a worsening environmental crisis. The ‘green economy’ is being touted as the solution to these economic and ecological problems.

Greening the Economy?

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) defines ‘green economy’ as “improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities.” In its simplest expression, according to the UNEP, a green economy is low-carbon, resource-efficient, and socially inclusive. The UNEP concludes that ‘greening’ produces a higher rate of economic growth, that there is link between poverty eradication and better maintenance and conservation of the ecological commons, and that new jobs will be created.

Growth in income and employment is premised to be driven by public and private investments that reduce carbon emissions and pollution, enhance energy and resource efficiency, and prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. So-called enabling conditions for public and private investments should be created, according to the UNEP. And this is where the green economy concept backslides to the old crisis context: international trade and development aid, fiscal reforms, market infrastructure, financial mobilization, and the like.

Critics say that the green economy concept is a worse version of neoliberal globalization. One of the reasons that it is becoming controversial is its explicit proposal to attach a price to natural resources and all other resources of the economy including human knowledge. The green economy assumes that firms and industries have relied on under-priced resources and these have been implicit subsidies for their inefficient operations. This is so true in the case of the Third World, where First World transnational corporations (TNCs) have undervalued and plundered Third World resources for centuries. But the green economy is not about stopping TNC plunder. It ironically proposes to price natural resources, supposedly because this discourages TNC plunder, but which actually introduces the complete commodification of nature and the ecosystems. Green economy treats nature and ecosystems as tradable assets thereby completing the privatization of commons and encouraging further private access and appropriation.

Worse, while neoliberal globalization has always promoted price decontrol, allowing “market forces to determine prices”, in the green economy the pricing of natural resources is delegated to the governments especially of the underdeveloped countries through “effective regulation.” The green economy may actually also be the worst version of privatization as promoted by the World Bank – a partnership of public and private investments where the public absorbs the investment risks of private corporations.

Even in promoting so-called green agriculture, the UNEP is proposing partnerships with the world’s biggest seed companies, global pesticide businesses, and food processing corporations. In the words of UNEP, “these companies have the power to determine, to a large extent, how the global agriculture sector could endorse and encourage green and sustainable farming practices.”

On climate change

The green economy promotes the mechanism of “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation” (REDD) as the best opportunity to transition forestry to a green economy. The REDD+ (including conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest stocks) has been criticized by civil society organizations in the current UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations as another business-as-usual, market-based solution to climate change.

The REDD+ is simply about paying the forest landowner for providing watershed protection, carbon storage, recreation, biodiversity and others. It is a mechanism that monetizes the carbon found as tradable credits. The finance is flowing from the industrialized countries (the ones buying the credits) to the underdeveloped countries (the ones tasked to reforest, conserve and protect in order to earn money presumably for adaptation to climate change). It has been criticized because it promotes the continuation of GHG emissions by industrialized countries as long as they pay a forest sector somewhere in the Third World. The green economy now proposes to extend the REDD+ to ocean carbon or even soil carbon.

The green economy promotes renewable energy and low-carbon technologies to build green cities. Renewable energy is already a booming sector. To promote it further, the green economy banks on the assurance of a carbon market and pricing to be clinched by the recent global negotiations on climate change as incentive for investors to go into renewable energy.

More business than usual

After all the rhetoric on turning around from the “business-as-usual” option, the green economy is taking off from where the global economy got derailed to bring back business, as usual, at its usual pace. It is all about market-based solutions such as investments in natural resources, pricing natural resources, carbon trading, trade and capital liberalization and the like. It actually allows TNCs, financial oligarchs and First World governments to choose between paying for their emissions and the environmental havoc they wreak then continue to pollute and shifting to and profiting from green technologies. It is thus a win-win situation for big business.

The proponents of green economy have diluted the whole progressive concept of sustainable development. Disconnecting growth from increasing consumption of energy and resources by innovation of technology that raises efficiency is problematic for two obvious reasons: one, it continues to aim for growth rather than social welfare and people’s needs; and two, it ignores the current consumption pattern as a subset of the current growth pattern. The goal of growth thus will eventually only require more resources, more sinks, more waste. Growth is achievable but the green economy will not address the environmental and social objectives of sustainable development.

Road to Rio

The proposed ‘Road to Rio’ is not a departure from the general framework of the same greedy system that has pushed the planet to the precipice of destruction. It still looks at nature, people and their products as capital that must be used in the most efficient manner for profit accumulation. It has more dangerous twists and turns than before, however, as the commodification of nature becomes quite prominent by relying on getting prices right, eco-tax reforms, greening markets, and infrastructure investments. Private appropriation is extended to nature which eventually leads to resource grabs and privatization of the commons.

The aspiration for sustainable development brings humanity to basic reflections on society and economy. Both are embedded in the environment, and social and economic well-being is predicated on a healthy environment. The purpose of the economy should be to fulfill human needs and to advance human well-being and development. As such, human activity should be within ecological limits and economic production should be the correct application of human knowledge and technology that preserve ecological integrity and health – an application that takes cultural diversity into consideration as well. Without reflection on these basic principles the Earth may still survive its worst catastrophe, but humanity will not. (IBON Features / Bulatlat.com)

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